The Miliband-Blair war of words is a preview of bigger battles to come

If Labour unity has largely held since the election it is because Miliband has chosen to postpone almost all policy decisions.

Tony Blair's dramatic intervention in the centenary edition of the New Statesman (180 pages, out now) leads several of today's papers (the Independent and the Times have splashed on it), with some of the former prime minister's key allies taking the opportunity to air their own concerns about the party's direction under Ed Miliband. The increasingly outspoken Peter Mandelson tells the Independent: "Tony is saying what he has always thought – that the old dividing lines between the uncaring Conservative cuts and Labour spending has got to be redrawn for new times.

"I suspect the two Eds realise this. Their call for One Nation is the right starting point, but there are major structural challenges and choices facing Britain and Labour must consider the difficult changes and reforms needed to address them."

Alan Milburn, Blair's former health secretary, adds: "The closer the election comes, people will stop asking Labour what it is against. They will want to know what Labour is for and what, if elected, it would do. Tony Blair is right to argue that the sooner that process begins in earnest, the better."

One suspects that Miliband, who wasted no time in shrugging off Blair's warning not to "tack left on tax and spending", will be unfazed by their words. Both Mandelson and Milburn are no longer MPs, of course, and have little sway over today's Parliamentary Labour Party. But Blair's intervention and the response to it offers a preview of bigger battles to come. It's often said that Labour is more united now than at any point in recent history but this ignores the fact that there's been little to be disunited about.

Miliband's "blank sheet of paper" is gradually being filled but the Labour leader has chosen to postpone almost all policy decisions until 2014-15. Even when he proposes a new measure such as the reinstatement of the 10p tax rate, or the introduction of a "mansion tax", Miliband is careful to emphasise that these are examples of what Labour would be doing were it in power now, not manifesto commitments. The same applies to the party's five point plan for jobs and growth, the 50p tax rate, benefits uprating and just about every policy area Miliband has touched on since becoming leader.

But at some point before the election, he will need to decide where he really stands. Will Labour, for instance, pledge to stick to the coalition's spending limits for the early years of the new parliament (as Labour did with the Tories' in 1997) our outline its own alternative plan? What will the balance of tax rises to spending cuts be? Will he propose cuts to the welfare budget or allow the burden to fall entirely on public services? Will he pledge to keep Michael Gove's "free schools"? How far will he go in reversing the coalition's NHS reforms? Will he retain the £26,000 benefit cap? 

Liberated from office, Blair enjoys the luxury of posing questions without answering them (although NS editor Jason Cowley has a go in today's Times) but Miliband does not. And once he begins to set out his stall, Labour unity could quickly begin to fray. Recall the tumult that followed Ed Balls's declaration of support for the public sector pay freeze and Labour's decision to abstain on the workfare bill (a move that prompted a rebellion by 44 backbenchers). As one Labour MP recently told me, a pledge to make further cuts to public spending (as the party will surely do) would make such rows "look like a tea party". For this reason, among others, David Cameron and George Osborne will continue to appear unreasonably cheerful. Most of their tough decisions are behind them; Labour’s are all still to come.

Tony Blair talks with Ed Miliband during a Loyal Address service to mark the Queen's Diamond Jubilee at Westminster Hall. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.